Singapore arguably was built on the backs of engineers, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed recently. That acknowledged the contributions of a professional fraternity responsible for boosting the city-state's water supply by recycling water and increasing its physical size by reclaiming land. These successes are just two examples of the ways in which modern Singapore literally has been engineered into existence. Appreciation of this has been reflected in the clear focus on financing the growth of engineering talent, seen in the state's decision to fund scholarships that helped to develop a national core of engineers who would build basic infrastructure and help to industrialise the economy. The Government's decision to hire 1,000 engineers this year, thereby expanding the existing pool by more than 13 per cent, indicates how much they still are needed.
However, it is business and finance that are among disciplines that vie for the attention of top students today. It is essential therefore to move beyond "supply-side" incentives that once drew students to the profession and boost the "demand-side" attractions of engineering. Re-emphasise, for example, its intellectual calling: not to make an ideal world, but to blunt the jagged material edges of an imperfect world.
Gratifyingly, the National University of Singapore is revamping its engineering curriculum to move beyond giving its first-year students a strong foundation in mathematics and physics, to emphasising a hands-on approach to applying their learning to solve problems. The theoretical aspects of the discipline cannot be ignored, but the shift in emphasis should mark an evolution from what students learn in junior college to what brings them closer to the real world. The creation of specialisation tracks - in research and development, and in engineering design and innovation - could encourage research-minded students to pursue their passion, while sharpening the focus on practicality that others might prefer.
Nanyang Technological University, where the elite Renaissance Engineering Programme was launched in 2011, has seen a rise in interest in the discipline among students. The programme combines engineering with business and the liberal arts, and provides students the opportunity to study at partnering foreign universities and intern at companies abroad. Singapore students do benefit from sharing experiences with their peers in advanced economies where engineering remains at the cutting edge of national excellence.
More needs to be done, however, to retain engineering graduates in the profession. Balancing the interests of Singaporean engineers and foreign professionals; and making engineering jobs more rewarding are among the ways in which Singapore's success can be re-engineered in these times of technological acceleration.